GREENWASHING: WHAT CONSUMERS SHOULD KNOW

Green Paint

In the world of retail, consumers are constantly bombarded by slick marketing claims that purport a product’s virtues. And, in a society where green is in fashion, labels such as organic and natural are constantly appearing on shelves. While many seem to be legitimate, a lot of these assertions are actually far from true and contribute to an unfortunate trend known as greenwashing.

A nationwide survey of consumers by environmental policy firm ABT Associates discovered that over half of consumers consider environmental issues when purchasing goods. But, their choices are frequently based on misinterpretations of the terms used to promote alleged green products.

According to The Washington Post, there are 80 different environmental words used commonly in the United States. EcoLogo, a third-party environmental certification group, analyzed more than 2,000 North American products that claim to be environmentally sound and found that 98 percent lack proof to justify their claims. There are few standard definitions of green terms, so consumers often interpret labels at face value and fail to instigate further research.

The Federal Trade Commission, however, has developed truth-in-advertising guidelines for marketers to use to properly label green products.

Products labeled as biodegradable should completely disintegrate and return to nature within one year of disposal. Any product that is destined for a landfill, incinerator or recycling facility should not be classified as biodegradable. Greener products are labeled as compostable. However, biodegradable liquids such as detergents typically degrade in the wastewater system and are considered to be environmentally sound choices.

Recyclable products should be marketed based on the availability of recycling facilities. A product can carry an unqualified recyclable claim only if a substantial majority of consumers have access to facilities that accept the product for recycling. If only a significant percentage of consumers have access to proper recycling facilities for a certain product, then the product label must bear a disclaimer stating that the product may not be recyclable in all areas.

Recycled or recycled content products should be created from content that was diverted from the waste stream either during the manufacturing process or following consumer use. If a product or its packaging is not manufactured COMPLETELY from recycled materials, the label should indicate the amount of recycled content in the product or package, such as 25 percent
post-consumer materials.

Similarly, products or packages that claim to be manufactured with renewable materials or renewable energy must list the specific materials or energy sources used to create the product or package and the amount of renewable content or renewable energy used in the manufacturing process.

Unregulated terms such as green, natural, naturally derived, sustainable, less toxic and non-toxic are too vague to be substantiated and may be somewhat fallacious. For instance, a product may indeed contain a few natural ingredients, but it may also contain harmful ingredients that render any environmentally conscious claims essentially false.

Truly environmentally sound products will feature certification labels. Reliable certification labels are issued by either a government entity such as the United States Department of Agriculture or the Environmental Protection Agency or a third-party certification firm such as EcoLogo. Certification agencies rigorously test products and thoroughly research claims to ensure that goods that claim to be green are, in fact, environmentally sound and safe for consumer use. Some common, trustworthy certification seals include EcoLogo, Green Seal, GreenGuard, Energy Star, EPEAT, Certified Humane, Cradle to Cradle, EPA Design for the Environment and EPA WaterSense. Products can be accurately deemed organic only if they bear the USDA Organic seal. The Fair Trade Certified label indicates products that derive from farmers and laborers – often in developing countries – who are justly compensated for their goods and services. The Forest Stewardship Council label guarantees that products are sourced from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social and economic benefits. The Council for Consumer Information on Cosmetics’ Leaping Bunny label provides assurance that no animal testing occurs in any phase of a product’s development.

Also, consider these points when purchasing products that claim to be environmentally sound.

  • Do the product’s materials harm the environment or endanger natural resources?
  • Does the product’s manufacturing process harm the environment or endanger natural resources? Is its manufacturing process energy-intensive? Water-intensive? Chemical-intensive?
  • How does the product contribute to the waste stream during its lifecycle?
  • What are the company’s environmental and social policies? For instance, does the company recycle? Are its manufacturing processes sustainable? Does the company provide fair wages for its laborers?

To research product claims and company practices, visit The Good Guide. Using scientific methods, The Good Guide rates manufacturers based on their contributions to public health, the safety of their products, their environmental and social policies and more.

FOR MORE INFORMATION …

Consumer Reports’ EcoLabel Index

Green Certification and EcoLabeling : Small Business Administration

Labeling Programs and Rating Tools from the EPA

21 Green Certification Symbols You Should Know

Energy Star

EPA Design for the Environment

EPA WaterSense

USDA Organic Program

GreenGuard

Green Seal Certified

Greenwashing Index from the University of Oregon

Forest Stewardship Council

Fair Trade Certified

Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics’ Leaping Bunny Program

EcoLogo (UL)

 

 

 

 

 

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